November 20th 2011 Comedians have stress blog.
In previous blogs I’ve tried to explain what it’s like for a comedian and warm-up man to make an audience laugh in a club, theatre, television studio or a mixed sauna in Sweden. Oh….you missed the one about my gig in the mixed sauna? Well I won’t bore you with it all over again, but I will remind you how disappointed I felt when, after I thought I’d received a massive round of applause, as the steam cleared I realised the sound I’d heard was actually thirty-five pairs of bare buttocks sitting down on stone slabs at the same time.
So, if you’ve read some of my previous blogs, by now you should have some idea what it’s like to stand on a stage and tell jokes and funny stories hoping the people sitting there watching you will find you at the very least mildly amusing and at best, flippin’ hilarious.
This time around I want to give you a flavour of what it’s like behind the scenes, backstage, before that heart-stopping moment when your name is called and it’s your turn to walk up to the microphone. Actually, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. I mean, if it really was a heart-stopping moment, you’d never make it to the microphone would you? You’d be lying semi-conscious on the floor with someone working on your chest and giving you the kiss of life. Similar to what you might see on some Swansea streets on most Friday nights.
I compered a comedy night recently which featured an array of comedians. No, that doesn’t sound right, does it? An ‘array‘ of comedians. No, there has to be a better word to describe a collection of funny men. A ‘ giggle ‘ of comedians maybe? Knowing some comedians penchant for ‘ borrowing‘ other comedians material, I think it was Barry Cryer who coined the phrase a ‘ steal ‘ of comedians. And bearing in mind how stressed-out and worried many ( though not all ) comedians are before they go on stage, maybe the most apt word would be a ‘misery ‘ of comedians.
Anyway, this particular night there were eight comedians on the bill plus me compering and generally keeping order. There was a real mixture of ages and experience amongst the eight comics, from the ones with loads of gigs under their belts to those who were comedy virgins.
But it was noticeable that even some of the experienced ones were visibly nervous, unsure if the act that might have stormed an audience the previous night will get the same reaction this night. Because that happens a lot. Solid gold material can raise the roof one night, yet, delivered in exactly the same way to a different audience in another venue the following night, it can be met by silence….or even worse…heckles and jeers.
Heckles and Jeers? Weren’t they a comedy double-act back in the 70’s.
It’s odd that audiences can feel so free to heckle a comedian or even shout out ” Heard it!” while he’s in the middle of a joke, but they never do that when a singers on stage belting out a chart-topping pop song or a power ballad. Imagine going to see Shirley Bassey at the Royal Albert Hall. The 60-piece orchestra starts the strident, brassy intro to “ Goldfinger “. Shirley opens her mouth to allow that glorious voice of hers to belt out “ Gold….fingah! He’s the man, the man with the Midas touch….” and some annoying twonk in the second row who thinks he’s funny , suddenly yells out “ Heard it!“.
That never happens and quite rightly so. But a performer who may be just as talented in the comedy world as Shirley is in the music world, is wide open to being rudely interrupted by an obnoxious audience member and is expected to be able to handle it. I just thought that was a point worth making. Where the heck was I….?
Oh yeah. Back to that comedy night. It was interesting for me to quietly observe how each of the comics dealt with the ‘ordeal’ they were about to endure.
And make no mistake about it, if you go out there and your first few jokes or amusing observations fall flat and get little or no reaction from the audience, so you start losing confidence and sweat appears on your top lip and the inside of your mouth suddenly resembles the Gobi Desert at noon and you’re wondering if the rest of your material will meet a similar fate and your mind starts wandering and you ask yourself why you didn’t take your brothers advice and take up a much-less hazardous occupation, like grizzly bear wrestling or sky-diving without a parachute….it definitely becomes an ordeal.
Different comedians cope with pre-show nerves in different ways. Some like to quietly sip a pint. Or two. Or three. That’s not something I would recommend. I never drink alcohol before a show. I respect my audience too much to go out there with a drink or drinks inside me. They might have had several , which is all well and good. But a comedian has to remain sharp and focused and you can’t do that when alcohol is flowing though you system. Or when you’re wresting grizzly bears.
On this particular night, minutes before the show started, some comedians paced up and down, going over and over the act in their head. Some stood outside smoking and chatting as if they were just waiting for a ‘bus. Others sat there, hands in their heads, apparently asleep but actually trying to remember a new line they wrote that day and how they could shoe-horn it into their well-rehearsed routine. Mind you, I did discover that one of them really was fast asleep because of Jet lag. He’d left his car at the petrol station and walked eight miles to the gig.
They all dealt with their nerves in their own way and what worked for them, definitely must work for them, because on this particular evening, none of the comedians let me down. They each had their own style and attitude and came well prepared with plenty of fresh, laugh-out-loud routines. I know they all took the time to prepare for the night. And that I think is the main way a comedian can conquer his or her nerves. By knowing their act inside and outside, frontwards and backwards, so that if they do mess up a line – and it can happen to the very best and most experienced – they know exactly what the next line is, deliver it perfectly and get the laughter that their hard work and creativity deserves.
My thanks go out to the following performers: Gary Slaymaker, Gill Ray, Matt Steel, Huw Marshall, Andy Woolley, Ignacio Lopez, Geraint Evans, Alan Wightman and Luke England.
That’s it for now. If I don’t speak to you all before December 25th, let me be the first to wish you a Happy Easter and a joyous May Day Bank Holiday,